Detail of Schwarzenberg's coat-of-arms

The Sedlec Ossuary (Czech: kostnice Sedlec) is a small Christian chapel decorated with human bones, located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, which is a suburb in the outskirts of the Kutna Hora town in the Czech Republic. The ossuary contains approximately 40,000 human skeletons which have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.

The story begins in 1278, when Henry, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec, made a pilgrimage to the holy land. When he returned, he brought with him a small amount of earth he had removed from Golgotha and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery.

The word of this pious act soon spread and the cemetery in Sedlec became a desirable burial site throughout Central Europe. By 1318, more than 30,000 bodies were buried there and by 1511, it had become necessary to remove the older bones to make place for the new ones. These later became the material for the macabre creations. In 1870, František Rint, a local woodcarver, was employed by the Schwarzenberg family to decorate the inside of the church with the human remains.

The largest collections of bones are arranged in the form of bells in the four corners of the chapel. An enormous chandelier of bones, which contains at least one of every bone in the human body, hangs from the center of the nave with garlands of skulls draping the vaults. Other works include piers and monstrances flanking the altar, a large Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms, and the signature of Master Rint, also executed in bone, on the wall near the entrance.

In 1970, the centenary of Rint’s contributions, Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer was commissioned to document the ossuary. The result was a 10 minute long frantic-cut nightmare of skeletal images overdubbed with an actual tour-guide’s neutral voice narration. Švankmajer later re-edited the film, replacing the narration with a brief spoken introduction and a jazz arrangement by Zdeněk Liška of the poem “Comment dessiner le portrait d’un oiseau” ("How to draw the portrait of a bird") by Jacques Prévert.